Return to the office: How to support reluctant staff

Return to the office: How to support reluctant staff

As vaccination rates increase and social-distancing restrictions ease in some parts of the world, many organisations are gearing up to welcome staff back to offices. While some are keen to get back to the structure and routine of office life, to see colleagues and escape distractions at home, others are less keen to leave remote working behind.

For many in the UK and the US, it has been more than a year since they set foot in the office, and the idea of a return understandably raises some anxiety. So what can organisations do to support reluctant workers in making this transition?

Listening to concerns

Understanding employees’ individual needs and concerns is the first step, says Loretta Outhwaite, FCMA, CGMA, interim director of finance at Sussex Health and Care Partnership ICS in the UK.

“Everyone’s mental health and resilience has suffered over the last year, and there are a lot of people who have had a really tough time during lockdown. It is really important to listen to them, to understand what their needs are now and how you can support them. That’s what people need to know: that they matter, they’re being listened to, their needs are being prioritised.”

The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) advises employers to consider whether it is essential that employees return to the office, whether it is sufficiently safe for them to do so, and whether it is by mutual agreement.

“Giving employees adequate notice so that they can get used to the idea and make any necessary arrangements, such as childcare,” can help avoid generating further stress, Outhwaite said.

A survey of 1,000 US-based respondents conducted in February 2021 by Envoy found that:

  • 66% said they were worried about their health and safety returning to the workplace.
  • 62% believe vaccinations should be mandatory to work on-site.
  • 76% are concerned employers will relax COVID-19 safety measures too early.

Informing employees about the safety measures in place is also important in reducing anxiety. A separate poll of 1,000 office workers in the US, conducted in February 2021 by Eden, found that:

  • 71% expect free hand sanitiser.
  • 61% expect the company to provide masks.
  • 59% expect socially distanced workspaces.
  • 47% expect temperature checks.
  • 66% said that they would feel comfortable attending an in-person meeting if participants were six feet apart.

“Employers have to show leadership and keep assuring staff of the measures they are taking,” said Andy Mensah, FCMA, CGMA, HR and administrative manager at Tropical Cable and Conductor, in Tema, Ghana.

After a total lockdown between late March and May last year, businesses in Ghana were able to reopen. At that stage, information about the coronavirus and how it spread was less readily available, so the company held an event to explain the COVID-19 protocols to its 130 employees.

For example, to access the production facility, reporting times are staggered and employees enter via a sanitising booth. The facility is fumigated twice a month. Additional handwash basins were installed throughout the premises, and all employees are provided with masks, as well as Vitamin C to boost immunity. COVID-19 testing was carried out in November and December, and in March, vaccinations were provided on-site for the entire workforce. A COVID-19 management meeting is held each week to assess the effectiveness of the measures and identify any additional action that may be required.

“Until we are very clear that we are out of the woods, these measures will continue. Once employees feel you are taking care of them, they can really give of their best,” Mensah said.

Commuting considerations

In locations where the majority rely on public transport to get to work, commuting on a crowded train and the associated risk of contracting COVID-19 is high on the list of employee concerns. A YouGov survey conducted in late April 2021 found that 53% of Londoners polled would not feel comfortable travelling by tube (underground), while 42% would not feel comfortable travelling by train.

“Minimise the need to travel in as much as possible, and stagger people’s start and finish times so that they don’t hit the peak rush hours,” Outhwaite said. Organisations can also encourage people to explore other travel options to find new routes, perhaps walking to a different station on a line that’s less busy, or using an electric bike for the most congested stretch of the journey.

Make the best use of office time

A phased return could help people get used to working in the office again, Outhwaite suggests. “The first visit could be for a team meeting, then working one day a week from the office, and gradually start to increase the number of office days so people can find their way through all the concerns they have.” Restricting the numbers coming in each day will also help with social distancing.

Discussions among teams to figure out how best to use that office time and how you are all going to work together could also be beneficial, Outhwaite suggests. Consider what types of activities are best done in the same room, rather than remotely.

“Once employees are coming in regularly, check in to see how they are, and help them work through what they’re feeling about the journey, or about being in the office. If they need some counselling support, make sure that they get it,” Outhwaite said.

In response to employee feedback that they would feel comfortable working from home most of the time, KPMG has announced that UK employees will spend four days in the office every two weeks, and the rest of the time working from home or a client site. Workspaces will mainly be used for collaboration, teamwork, and learning, according to a news release.

For Raymond Gann, ACMA, CGMA, interim finance controller at Spring Messe GmbH, there are clear benefits to being in the office in Mannheim, Germany, at least three days per week.

Gann and his team are all relatively new to the company and are overseeing a period of transformation from a German SME to a subsidiary of a UK corporation, following an acquisition in February 2020. Changes include replacing the accounting system, the roll-out of new ERM and CRM systems, as well as a switch to IFRS reporting standards, not to mention external challenges such as the pandemic and Brexit.

“My staff members recognise it’s a new job with new things to learn. We observe social distancing, we wear our masks, but they come into my office and we have a quick meeting on a particular subject. We benefit tremendously from these impromptu meetings during the day.” With so much change, “this high level of interaction is very important for our work. It also helps build our relationship”.

Adapting to hybrid work

Though there is no blueprint for bringing staff back to the office, it provides an opportunity to re-evaluate working practices and do more of what has gone well over the last year, Outhwaite notes.

Many professionals are keen to hold on to the flexibility gained, citing improved work/life balance, less time and money spent commuting, and improved performance among the benefits of hybrid working. Finding the right approach is critical to employee satisfaction and retention.

A survey of 1,000 UK employees conducted for Personio found that 27% of respondents would be likely or highly likely to resign if flexible working opportunities were rescinded. In the US study conducted by Envoy, about 60% of younger workers (Gen Z and Millennials) said they would look for another job if their employer didn’t offer hybrid work.

These adjustments require trust, flexibility, and a step away from the “presence equals performance” mindset. “Business leaders will have to be very patient and treat each case on its individual merits,” Gann said.

Samantha White is a freelance writer based in the UK. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Ken Tysiac, FM magazine’s editorial director, at